The Final Straw, Leads to SF Police Chief Resigning

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Greg Suhr
Former SF Police Chief Greg Suhr resigned on Thursday following the shooting death of Jessica Williams.

Early on Thursday morning, a 29-year-old African American identified as Jessica Williams was shot and killed by a San Francisco police sergeant as she allegedly attempted to flee officers in a vehicle they suspected to be stolen.  She was unarmed and there was no indication that she posed a threat to officers when she was shot.

As the San Francisco Chronicle reported on Friday, “Thursday’s shooting was what many community members and city authorities called the last straw in excessive force from police, more specifically against people of color, igniting a chain of events that ended with Police Chief Greg Suhr’s forced resignation later in the day.”

Mayor Ed Lee had avoided calls to fire or ask Police Chief Greg Suhr to resign up until this point.  His support remained, despite a number of high profile incidents including several disclosures about text messages and two questionable officer involved shootings.

In a press conference, the mayor said that he had “arrived at a different conclusion to the question of how best to move forward.”

“The progress we have made has been meaningful, but it hasn’t been fast enough, not for me and not for Greg, and that’s why I have asked Chief Suhr for his resignation,” Mayor Lee said.

Mayor Lee named Toney Chaplin, a 47-year-old African American, who had been overseeing the department’s professional standards unit, as acting chief.

While the mayor acknowledged that facts were still emerging, he said, “These officer-involved shootings, justified or not, have forced our city to open its eyes to questions of when and how police use lethal force.”

Mayor Lee said police shootings have “shaken and divided our city, and tensions between law enforcement and communities of color that have simmered for too many years have come into full view. … The community is grieving, and I join them in that grief.”

The death of Ms. Williams marks the third individual killed by San Francisco police since last December. The DOJ is currently reviewing the San Francisco Police Department after officers killed Mario Woods in December of last year.

Autopsies showed that Mr. Woods was hit by more than 20 shots.  Police claim that the autopsy corroborated the investigation.  “It is difficult for anyone to watch videos of the shooting. Similarly, it is equally as difficult to read the Medical Examiner’s report,” the statement said. “That said, newly released information in the autopsy report appears to corroborate facts gathered by investigators in the aftermath of this tragic incident.”

However, Mayor Ed Lee asked the Justice Department to investigate the death.

“In the past few weeks, our city has grappled with a crisis all too common in so many other American cities — the dissolution of trust between communities of color and law enforcement — following the death of a young black man shot and killed by police officers,” Mayor Lee wrote in a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch. “We want to throw our doors open, inviting transparency and accountability. We seek answers, not just to the facts of Mr. Wood’s case, but also answers about how as a police department and a city we can build deeper, stronger trust between law enforcement and the communities they’re sworn to protect.”

Just as damaging was not one but two rounds of racist and homophobic text messages exchanged by members of the SF Police Department.

In April, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi announced that racist and homophobic text messages exchanged among three San Francisco police officers may affect at least 207 criminal cases, including three murder cases.

Mr. Adachi released text messages from former officer Jason Lai, which his office received in discovery for a robbery case Lai helped investigate. In the messages, according to a press release from the public defender’s office, Mr. Lai makes disparaging remarks about African Americans, Latinos, Indians, and LGBT people. In the messages, which are rife with racial and sexual slurs, Mr. Lai compares black people to “barbarians” and “a pack of wild animals on the loose.”

Using a Cantonese slur for blacks, Mr. Lai states, “Bunch of hock gwais shooting each other. Too bad none of them died. One less to worry about.”

“It is chilling how casually former officer Lai dehumanizes the citizens he was sworn to serve,” Mr. Adachi said. “He wished violence upon the very people he was being paid to protect and none of his colleagues turned him in.”

The text messages came to light after police investigated a rape accusation against Mr. Lai. According to the public defender’s office, he was charged last month with two misdemeanor counts of unlawful possession of criminal history information and four misdemeanor counts of misuse of confidential Department of Motor Vehicles information, and is currently free on bail.

Sgt. Yolanda Williams, who was the target of some of the text message released last year, said a year ago, “We know that this is not an isolated incident. This problem is systemic within the San Francisco Police Department and unfortunately there have been some who have chosen to turn a blind eye.”

She said that some members of the Officers for Justice have been on the force for over 30 years and can recall similar incidents, even incidents far more egregious than the text messaging scandal.

She cited a consistent problem with the disciplinary process in the police department. She said, “When a minority officer stands before members of the command staff or the commission, unfortunately when their cases are heard, minority issues are dealt with a little bit more severe – the discipline (given to minority officers) is more severe.”

Sgt. Williams said, “I stand before you as a woman who was called… a NIGGER BITCH… I’m going to tell you something. First of all, it’s offensive to any female that has risked their lives on a daily basis for the citizens of this city. We entered into this position considering it a noble one and that is why we gave our lives and we committed ourselves to serve and protect the citizens of San Francisco.”

“These rogue cops have been disrespectful. They have brought discredit to our uniform. It is outright bigotry and hatredness. And as a victim, the thing that hurts me the most is the outright betrayal of this department,” she said forcefully.

In early April, Mr. Adachi urged the California Attorney General to open a civil rights investigation into the San Francisco Police Department’s practices.

In a letter sent to California Attorney General Kamala Harris, Adachi details a near-constant stream of scandals involving the department’s use-of-force policies, racially lopsided enforcement strategies, and bigoted text messages exchanged between two separate groups of officers.

He noted, “Because the San Francisco Police Department failed to investigate that matter within the one year statute of limitations provided by the Police Officers’ Bill of Rights, a Superior Court judge ruled that no discipline could be imposed on any of the officers involved. In the most recent texting scandal, the District Attorney contends that although police officials were aware of the texts in September 2015, they failed to notify the District Attorney until last week.”

He added, “These incidents reveal a pattern and practice within the police department that has allowed racism and disparate treatment of black and Latino people to fester and grow.”

He asked Ms. Harris and her office “to conduct a formal investigation to determine whether the San Francisco Police Department has engaged in a pattern or practice of conduct that deprives persons of ‘rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States or by the Constitution or Laws of California.’ California Civil Code §52.3.”

Clearly the new shooting was the final straw for Mayor Lee, even though he acknowledged that Chief Suhr was cooperating.

Chief Suhr becomes the latest casualty of the current round of reforms.  Last summer, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts was fired following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody.  Chicago Police Superintendent Gerry McCarthy was fired in December following details of a department cover up of the shooting death of Laquan McDonald.

The Chronicle reported that Mayor Lee and Chief Suhr met in the mayor’s office on Thursday afternoon, “with the departing chief exiting a side door without speaking to reporters.”

–David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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4 thoughts on “The Final Straw, Leads to SF Police Chief Resigning”

      1. Jerry Waszczuk

        the problem is a lot deeper. The Ferguson’s and  San Francisco’s incident are indication that the problem is a lot deeper then we both think. Social problems related to poverty especially  lack of employment in the manufacturing industry  leads  to increase of crimes and  gangs activities and to the police profiling and brutality .  State ‘prisons are full and prisoners are being outsourced  to others states to be handled by  private companies .  This is not good sign regardless that SF Chief of Police  resigned or was forced to resign.

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